Sustainable Development

The “Right Development” Approach

Following last week’s post that critiqued the history of the development industry, I’d like to propose an alternative model of development, which emerged from my research on the Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform movement of Thailand. After studying for a year what made Asoke communities so successful, I determined that in order to raise the quality of life for ordinary people, development must be culturally and locally appropriate, focused on livelihoods (not GDP), environmentally sustainable, and endogenously inspired, implemented, and maintained.

Part 1: Culturally & Locally Situated

 The conventional development industry operates on the notion that all nations of the world will develop similarly if given the opportunity through monetary and technical aid. This approach assumes that other social groups can, want, and should develop like Western industrialized nations. To the contrary, many scholars and development practitioners recognize that raising the quality of life for ordinary people requires attention to the specific culture and place where development is to occur. A culturally/locally situated approach may be more successful than conventional “cookie-cutter” development because it accounts for diversity in people’s histories, resources, capabilities, and aspirations for development.

In support of such an approach, the following critiques the mainstream development model for its historical and cultural construction and then surveys more culturally/locally sensitive perspectives emphasizing appropriate technology and local knowledge. Lastly, a more comprehensive consideration of culture and locale is demonstrated by the Asoke movement.

The Historical and Cultural Construction of Development

The creators of the global development industry regrettably failed to consider what post-structuralists now take as self-evident: The Western development model is historically and culturally constructed and as such cannot be reproduced globally with satisfying results.

The rapid development of US and European economies was made possible by a specific, unrepeatable moment in history called the Industrial Revolution. According to Maria Mies (1993), the “myth of catching-up development” is based on an evolutionary view of history that does not allow for alternate beginnings, trajectories, or end points.

Neo-Marxist dependency theorists further argue that Third World nations can never follow the West’s path. The dependency school’s core/periphery model suggests how exploitation was structured into the colonial relationship, such that the development of one necessarily leads to the underdevelopment of another. Many contemporary scholars such as liberation ecologists Peet and Watts also reject mainstream development as an academic and governmental enterprise “inseparable from the process by which the ‘colonial world’ was reconfigured into a ‘developing world’ in the aftermath of WW2” (1996:19).

In terms of its cultural construction, the mainstream development model is driven by the Western belief that a high material living standard indicates a high quality of life. Because the market is the dominant mechanism for determining value, material possessions have become global symbols of success. Gérald Berthoud explains the assumption underlying the conventional development goal: “Being human is thought to be motivated by a constant search for material well-being . . . somehow transcending all the particulars of culture and society” (1992:82).

Divergent conceptions of development may stem from religious beliefs, as illustrated by the Asoke development model. The Asoke group’s aim is not a Western ideal—to accumulate high levels of material comfort—but a Buddhist ideal—to release attachment to the material world and attain spiritual freedom. Asoke members’ efforts to develop themselves, their community, and the society around them thus reflect this Buddhist ideal. Thai social critic Sulak Sivaraksa also advocates “true development” from a Buddhist perspective:

Development must aim at the reduction of craving, the avoidance of violence, and the development of spirit rather than of material things. . . . The goal of increasing the quality of life is understood differently. From the materialist standpoint, when there are more desires, there can be further development. From the Buddhist standpoint, when there are fewer desires, there can be further development. (1990:171; emphasis added)

Ajaan Sulak has been influenced by Gandhi, who similarly felt that focusing on industrialization and economic growth was not in line with India’s aspirations for a spiritual way of life based on Hindu tradition.

In addition, small-scale subsistence economies may also have different development objectives than large-scale market economies. For example, Gudeman and Rivera (1990) observed in Columbia that swidden agriculturalists aim to “sustain” rather than “gain.” These economic anthropologists theorize that subsistence-based economies strive to achieve a level of production sufficient for the continual reproduction of their system; what is left over (the surplus) is progress. The predominant value is frugality, to economize or minimize the means to a certain end. Asoke communities work in a similar way toward a “sufficiency economy” but the surplus is sacrificed to society for “spiritual progress.”

Since many people who have become accustomed to a materialistic existence commonly misconstrue subsistence livelihoods as impoverished and in need of “development,” ecofeminist Vandana Shiva would make a distinction:

It is useful to separate the cultural conception of subsistence living as poverty from the material experience of poverty that is a result of dispossession and deprivation. Culturally perceived poverty need not be real material poverty: subsistence economies which satisfy basic needs through self-provisioning are not poor in the sense of being deprived. (1988:10)

To illustrate Shiva’s point, Srisa Asoke looks like a poor rural village when compared to the modern development of Bangkok, yet while the Asoke movement has a slogan, “Dare to Be Poor” in the eyes of materialistic outsiders, they do not intend deficiency in basic needs. Thus, different values and objectives such as subsistence, wealth accumulation, or spiritual enlightenment may determine development’s form.

Culturally/Locally Appropriate Alternatives

Many alternative development efforts have sought to make development more “locally” appropriate by taking into account “local” capabilities, resources, and knowledge. One such alternative is the appropriate technology (AT) approach that emerged during the 1970s Small Is Beautiful movement (following E. F. Schumacher).

According to Warren and Bourque, AT aimed “to attack Third World poverty and underdevelopment by increasing local productivity without reinforcing patterns of dependency on industrial nations” (1991:284). AT offered an improvement over the mainstream development approach in its realization that capital- and technology-intensive industrialization is not feasible—or necessary—in some places. AT targeted small-scale subsistence needs by introducing technology such as mud ovens that reduce fuel consumption (subsequently reducing the time women spent collecting wood) as well as low-cost storage facilities to keep animals and insects out of harvests, thereby increasing available food.

AT as a top-down development intervention had some problems; however, anthropologists maintain that local knowledge-based change, or innovation-on-the-ground, allows flexibility to find the most appropriate solutions and constitutes people as potential agents.

Local knowledge is not a closed system but a dynamic array of beliefs, values, and practices that may encompass survival and livelihood skills; familiarity with the immediate environment; spiritual ideas about the relationship between humans, nature, and the supernatural; cultural practices of resource management and dispute resolution; and so on. The contributors to Mark Hobart’s edited volume An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance (1993) in particular stress the value of treating local knowledges seriously and examining what they may contribute to people’s material, intellectual, and general welfare.

The work of anthropologists Michael Dove and Daniel Kammen illustrates how the use of local knowledge may bring success in development efforts where Western scientific knowledge does not. In a story about cookstove innovation, Kammen and Dove (1997) state that in Kenya, problems of design and expense were overcome using “mundane science,” that is, by working them out in real-life situations (rather than in a lab) with the help of local craftspeople and likely users.

Anthropologists generally recognize that culture is dynamic and thus do not romanticize a return to “tradition,” or facilely privilege “native wisdom” or “indigenous knowledge” over Western “expert” knowledge. The Asoke development model in fact draws from “traditional Thai culture,” Western environmental concepts and marketing techniques, Japanese methods of natural farming, and so on. In reality, people select from a wide variety of ideas and techniques available to them from global, regional, local, and historical sources. In the imaginative combination of these elements, something entirely new is fashioned.

The Asoke way of life represents a culturally and locally situated approach to development, at the very least because it is based on Buddhist and Thai values. Moreover, the agrarian livelihood practiced at Srisa Asoke is appropriate for its up-country location and, more generally, for a country whose population is over 60 percent rural.

Yet a culturally/locally situated approach to development requires more than merely incorporating local knowledge, beliefs, and practices and recognizing local resource constraints. These aspects are indeed important, since treating each community in its own terms allows a better understanding of people’s particular needs and goals than a pre-fabricated development project. However, the Asoke development model offers a more holistic approach in the way members assert their rights to autonomy, territory, identity, and their own vision of the future (Escobar 1995). This form of culturally/locally situated development is more empowering and can have longer-lasting effects, and thus has greater potential to raise the quality of life for ordinary people.

Part 2: Focused on Livelihoods

Countless scholars, activists, and practitioners take issue with the development industry’s tendency toward “growthmania”—its blind faith in economic growth as the solution to poverty. The previous post on “right development” touched on criticisms that the development = economic growth model is based on Western values of material accumulation and excludes other cultural configurations of development. This section is concerned with two additional arguments: 

First: Macroeconomic strategies implemented to foster economic growth (e.g., export production and trade liberalization) are not designed with the welfare of ordinary people in mind and frequently have negative affects on the poorest. Examples from India and Jamaica are provided below. 

Second: The standard measure for economic growth—the gross domestic product (GDP)—is a flawed indicator of development since it does not measure accurately either economic growth or human welfare. 

Instead of development geared toward raising the GDP, a “livelihood model” of development is favored here.

Problems with Macroeconomic “Development”

From the 1980s onward, international development agencies sought to stabilize flailing economies and spur growth by increasing connections to the global economy. While opening access to foreign capital and markets made sense to international financiers, scholars and activists fault macroeconomic structural adjustment programs (SAPs) of export-led growth and trade liberalization for their lack of attention to the lives of ordinary people. 

Vandana Shiva asks, what should be the global economy’s primary objective: freedom for trade or freedom for survival? 

“Free-trade” in agriculture as construed in GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] terms aims to create freedom for transnational corporations (TNCs) to invest, produce, and trade in agricultural commodities without restriction, regulation, or responsibility. This freedom for agribusiness is based on the denial of freedom to rural women to produce, process, and consume food according to the local environmental, economic, and cultural needs. (1993:231)

Shiva criticizes India’s SAP that prescribed the removal of food subsidies (that provided cheap food to the public) and urged import liberalization. She states that in 1991, India exported 672,000 tons of wheat, but the next year after liberalization, India imported 2.5 million tons of wheat—half of which came from the United States. The cost of importing wheat was more than the subsidy the government had paid to Indian farmers. As neither the Indian government nor Indian people benefited from these transactions, Shiva declares that SAPs transfer the benefits of economic activity from the poor (India’s farmers) to the rich (US agribusiness).

In observing declining conditions in a Jamaican ghetto over a fifteen-year period, Faye Harrison blames the same macroeconomic “development”:

The debt constrained, export-led, and free-trade-based development path that the Jamaican economy is following has failed to deliver the masses of Jamaican people from the dilemmas of persistent poverty and underdevelopment. Benefits from this development strategy have not trickled down the socioeconomic ladder. However, what have trickled down are the adverse effects of drastic austerity measures, which are the strings attached to aid from the IMF and World Bank. (1997:456)

Like countless others who criticize the social affects of SAPs, Harrison asserts, “These policies have sacrificed ordinary people’s—especially the poor’s—basic needs in health care, housing, education, social services, and employment for those of free enterprise and free trade” (451).

Problems with GDP

Structural reforms for export-led growth and trade liberalization aim to expand a country’s GDP, which is hailed as development. There are other human development indexes such as literacy and infant mortality rates, but the GDP far outweighs them all as the indicator of a nation’s development. 

Yet a growing number of scholars and policy makers reject the GDP as an indicator of development since it does not measure accurately economic growth or human welfare. Members of Redefining Progress (a non-profit organization) assert that the GDP is a faulty indicator of progress because it is “simply a gross tally of money spent—goods and services purchased by households or government and business investments, regardless of whether they enhance our well-being or not” (Cobb et al. 1999:1). That is, the GDP does not distinguish between productive and destructive activities. 

For example, the destruction of old growth forest for timber adds the market value of the wood to the GDP but does not subtract the cost of diminishing assets. Pollution is a double gain since the production of oil that creates pollution as well as clean-up costs add to the GDP. Similarly, car accidents, disease, crime, and divorce all generate income for the GDP through money spent on auto repairs, hospital bills, home security systems, and legal fees.  A steadily growing GDP may therefore hide real social and environmental problems that detract from people’s well-being. 

Development economist Amartya Sen (1988) adds that since the GDP measures per capita income, it is possible to have an average growth of GDP per head while distribution becomes more unequal (i.e., there is a decline in the real income of the poorest people). 

As a case in point, Thailand’s economic boom in the late 1980s following IMF structural adjustment recommendations was in fact limited to Bangkok. The contributors to Uneven Development in Thailand maintain that the majority of Thailand’s population in rural areas did not benefit from their country’s remarkable economic growth. In fact, “Some have benefited at the cost of others and, more generally, a minority has enjoyed the lion’s share of the spoils of growth” (Parnwell and Arghiros 1996:27). 

More generally, Sen (1999) counters the narrow view of development as growth in GDP with the notion of “development as freedom.” By “freedom” he means “the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of life they value—and have reason to value” (18). In Sen’s view, the GDP does not measure people’s ability to use their income to live well; thus, it cannot be used as an indicator of actual well-being. 

Sen contends that while growth in GDP may be an important means to expanding capabilities or “freedom,” there are other contributing factors. He states, “What people can positively achieve is influenced by economic opportunities, political liberties, social powers, and the enabling conditions of good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives” (5). Rather than focusing on any one particular means to development (such as growth of GDP), Sen calls our attention to the overarching objective of development—the enhancement of economic, social, and political freedoms that allow people to live a life they value.


“Free trade” may increase the GDP, but it does not feed people. Thus, focusing development efforts on livelihood security rather than macroeconomic growth will help raise the quality of life for ordinary people. Like a culturally/locally situated approach, the livelihood approach is small scale. At this level, it is possible to see social and environmental problems that the GDP hides, as well as the multitude of factors (besides money) that influence wellbeing. 

Feminist economists Grown and Sebstad describe livelihood systems as “a mix of individual and household survival strategies, developed over a given period of time, that seeks to mobilize available resources and opportunities” (1989:941). These strategies may include market and subsistence activities, borrowing, social networking, changing consumption practices, technical innovation, and so on. 

Livelihood systems are most successful when people diversify their strategies in order to optimize economic, social, technological, and environmental resources. Grown and Sebstad state that for the poorest people, survival is the utmost goal. Once survival is assured, the goal changes to security, and then may advance to growth. These economists contend that too few development planners realize the distinction between these three goals—most collapse everything into growth. 

Development practitioners Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway (1992) direct their work toward establishing sustainable livelihoods. They conceive of livelihoods as comprising people, their capabilities, and their means of living (including food, income, and assets). Chambers and Conway’s goals for developing livelihoods include enhancing capabilities, improving equity, and increasing sustainability. 

As mentioned above, Amartya Sen is responsible for the concept of “capabilities” (1984, 1988, 1999), referring to what a person is capable of doing and being. Equity may be defined in terms of relative income distribution (another of Sen’s concerns) or more broadly, equal distribution of assets, capabilities, and opportunities. Lastly, both social and environmental sustainability are sought. Social sustainability is the ability to cope and recover from stress and shock as well as provide for future generations. A livelihood is environmentally sustainable when it maintains or enhances local and global assets on which livelihoods depend and has beneficial effects on other livelihoods. 

In the last handful of years, interest in the sustainable livelihood approach (SLA) to development has been picking up speed. SLA was launched into the mainstream in 1999 by Great Britain’s Department for International Development, and since that first formalized collection of Guidance Sheets, other prominent development organizations such as Oxfam and the Women’s Refugee Commission have developed their own practitioner handbooks. The development industry’s movement toward sustainable livelihoods suggests that there is great hope for the project of global wellbeing.

 Part 3: Environmentally Sustainable

The third component in the right development approach has to do with environmental sustainability. Sustainability has emerged as a key concept in development thought and practice as negative environmental consequences of rapid economic growth have become glaringly apparent. The central question in mainstream sustainable development (SD) seems to be, how can we sustain economic growth considering finite resources? Conversely, a development approach that aims to raise the quality of life for ordinary people might ask, how can we sustain livelihoods considering widespread environmental degradation? Environmental concerns figure largely into the alternative development approach offered here since people’s wellbeing and that of the environment are interrelated. This section gives an overview of international dialogue on SD, presents critiques of the mainstream SD approach made by scholars in the social sciences and the development field, and offers alternatives in the form of social movements.

International Dialogue on SD

At the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the phrase “sustainable development” was proposed to smooth over the dichotomy between economic growth based on industrialization and the associated adverse environmental impacts. Much later, the World Commission on the Environment and Development’s (WCED) Brundtland Report popularized a general definition of SD: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987:43). Whereas past definitions were vague about how SD would be implemented, the Brundtland Report is much more elaborate about operational objectives:

 1) reviving growth;

2) changing the quality of growth;

3) meeting essential needs for jobs, food, energy, water, and sanitation;

4) ensuring a sustainable level of population;

5) conserving and enhancing the resource base;

6) reorienting technology and managing risk;

7) merging environment and economics in decision making; and

8) reorienting international economic relations. (WCED 1987:49)

The emphasis is clearly economic, with related global developmental concerns of basic human needs, population control, technology, and managing resources.

Documents produced at the UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (particularly Agenda 21) added little to previous thinking about SD (Adams 1995). They did, however, highlight ongoing disputes between Northern and Southern countries over the environment and development. There is difference of opinion on key problems: For industrialized countries, global atmospheric change and tropical deforestation are pressing issues; and for unindustrialized countries, poverty and problems which flow from it are paramount. There is also conflict over responsibility for finding solutions.

Critiques of Mainstream SD

The mainstream SD approach has not been successful in reconciling environmental and developmental concerns for several reasons. The first issue is SD’s conceptual and operational ambiguity. SD is generally thought to mean “environmentally sustainable development,” but it could also refer to “sustained growth” or simply “successful development.”

More importantly, the objectives of sustainability are continually under debate: What is to be sustained, for how long, and for whom? Anthropologist Victor King (1999) observes that the overall problem with SD is that a particular policy deemed “sustainable” for certain interest groups often undermines sustainability for others. For example, hydro-power projects—though promoted as renewable energy sources and therefore suitably “sustainable”—may force local communities to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

Furthermore, anthropologist Virginia Nazarea (1999) observes that ideas about the environment and sustainability are culturally constructed. In an ethnoecology study conducted in the Philippines, Nazarea sought culturally relevant indicators of sustainability and quality of life. Her central question was, “How do people arrive at decisions about levels of exploitation and rightful distribution and access that permit certain strategies and disallow others?” (93). She discovered culturally shared dominant themes (e.g., usefulness, diversity, and beauty of the environment) that were more salient for the local population than economic value. In place of Western “scientific” measures of sustainability, a culturally/locally situated development approach would work with these non-quantifiable concepts, which are more meaningful to the users of that environment.

Arturo Escobar (1995) extends the anthropological critique of mainstream SD by faulting its privilege of global ecosystem management (e.g., of deforestation and global warming) over people’s livelihoods and for the facile link it makes between poverty and environmental degradation (i.e., poor people cause environmental degradation).

For example, in the late 1970s, ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand who had occupied marginal forest areas for at least two generations were displaced by national forestry policy following Western models that establish preservation areas where settlement and use of forest resources are forbidden (Leungaramsri et al. 1992). These ethnic minorities who farm and forage in the northern mountain regions have been blamed for deforestation there; however, swidden agriculture and gathering of non-timber forest products pose little environmental threat when land is abundant. At present, the added pressures of increasing population, commercial logging (partly sponsored by the Thai government), and permanent cash crop cultivation by large agribusinesses disrupt the balance of short-cultivation and long-fallow reforestation cycles necessary for sustainable swidden agriculture. Thus the environmental degradation attributed to poor people actually stems from more complex development processes.

Last but certainly not least, mainstream SD reproduces the central problem of conventional development: unwavering confidence in economic growth. Although the Brundtland Report is praised for its comprehensive examination of environmental problems, it is criticized by grassroots environmental organizations, social activists, scholars, and alternative development practitioners in both the North and the South who maintain that is impossible for accumulation to continue without unacceptable environmental costs.

Thai social critic Sulak Sivaraksa underscores the idea that underdeveloped or developing nations “cannot and should not aspire to quantitative development on a par with that of Europe and America” (1990:170) due to real limits of the world’s resources. He quotes Gandhi as saying, “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [England] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts” (Bangkok Post, February 5, 1998).

Alternative Approaches to SD

Grassroots and NGO movements that strive for just, equitable, and sustainable livelihoods may succeed in uniting developmental and environmental interests where mainstream efforts have failed. Liberation ecologists Richard Peet and Michael Watts observe, “Indeed, it is striking how indigenous rights movements, conservation politics, food security, the emphasis on local knowledges and calls for access to and control over local resources (democratization, broadly put) crosscut the environment-poverty axis” (1996:35). These liberation ecologists propose that social movements offer diverse “visions of those forms of social and individual practice which are ethically proper and morally right with regard to nature” (1996:263). They also suggest that these “environmental imaginaries” are prime sites of contestation.

In a similar vein, studies by feminist political ecologists clearly demonstrate the interconnection between people, their environment, and development. According to Rocheleau, Thomas-Slater, and Wangari (1996), the SD of everyday lives emphasizes survival; the rights to live and work in a healthy environment; the responsibility to protect habitats, livelihoods, and systems of life support from contamination, depletion, and destruction; the determination to rehabilitate what has already been damaged; and the social organization needed to accomplish these things.

Examples of “everyday SD” include Spanish women demonstrating against dumping toxic waste in ethnic minority regions (Brú-Bistuer 1996), social movements in tropical rain forests bringing their own cultural models of appropriation and conservation to biodiversity debates over territorial control and intellectual property rights (Escobar 1999), and the Asoke movement advocating a way of life appropriate to and conservative of Thailand’s environment.

In sum, the “everyday SD” approach is an improvement over conventional SD for a number of reasons: 1) sustainability is an issue of particular people-environment-development problems rather than abstract global management; 2) it does not prioritize economic growth; 3) it accounts for cultural conceptions of the environment; and 4) it is more empowering for ordinary people. Thus, when we think about sustainability, if we focus on what individuals and groups can do in their daily lives–both personal and political–we can make a positive impact on the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Part 4: Endogenously Inspired, Implemented, and Maintained

The last stipulation of this “right development” approach, that development be endogenously inspired, implemented, and maintained, is perhaps the most challenging. What comes closest is participatory development, the most recent strategy to address problems incurred by the development industry, from specific project failures to the broad-sweeping negative effects of macroeconomic reform. The United Nations designated the year 2000 as the People’s Millennium, valorizing the voices of people whom processes of colonization and development have historically silenced. The intent was to “put a human face on development,” that is, to be more responsive to people’s needs as well as more empowering. 

This section surveys the implications and shortcomings of “participation” in the development context, considers one mainstream participatory development strategy (participatory rural appraisal—PRA), and vies for alternatives that are endogenously inspired, implemented, and maintained.

Participatory Development

Participatory development approaches are actually quite varied, but they may be classified into three broad categories. The first refers to the process in which information about a project is made available to the public. In this type of participation (which can hardly be considered so), views may be solicited from local leaders, but control remains in hands of outside planners. 

The second category comprises project-related activities in which community members contribute their views and labor and make a long-term commitment for maintenance. In this form of participation, there is more local involvement but still little direct control. Most community development projects initiated by outsiders resemble this type. 

The third class includes people’s own initiatives that fall outside projects sponsored by development agencies. Some scholars and activists contend that this third category is the only true form of participation.

Critiques of participatory development abound. While Michael Woost (1997) applauds the emergence of a participatory element in authoritative discourses of development, he also asserts that only some connotations of “participatory development” allow for a more bottom-up debate. Woost claims that mainstream use of participatory rhetoric in Sri Lanka offers little in the way of alternative development. On the contrary, the notion of participation has been “laundered and reshaped in official discourse to fit the mould of an increasingly ruthless drive to implement market-led development strategies intended quickly to turn Sri Lanka into a NIC [newly industrialized country]” (Woost 1997:230). In other words, development planners pay “lip service” to participation but continue on with development as usual.

According to Philip Hirsch’s observations in rural Thailand, power and control are fundamental to the evocation of participation in the development context. He states, “There is a constant tension between development as a liberating force giving people more control over their own lives and access to a better standard of living, and development as a constraining influence in the sense that decisions affecting people’s livelihoods are made at an ever more remote level” (Hirsch 1990:1 emphasis added). 

Participation in the “liberating” sense is inspired from within the community and structured around internally identified needs and objectives. Participation in the “constraining” sense is dictated by the agendas of national governments and international organizations, which often supersede the aims of village-level participants. 

Hence, the idea of participation is ambiguous in its implications for the role of villagers and the degree of control they have over change in their communities. Hirsch ponders whether participation is merely a hollow redistributive measure to include villagers—a means of making villagers more amenable to change desired by outside developers. 

Anthropologist Mark Hobart (1993) points out that since development discourse often construes people as ignorant, passive victims of forces over which they have no control, the agency for change must come from someone else: development planners who have “superior” knowledge and power. Tariq Banuri (1990) is quick to point out that the dominance of Western knowledge comes not from its inherent superiority, but from the political advantage of those who believe in its superiority. 

Though many development agents have honest “participatory” intentions, this relationship of “outside experts bringing development to the locals” is reminiscent of “colonizers civilizing the savages.” The possibility exists that people’s rights to autonomy, identity, and their own vision of the future will be tread upon in the process of externally imposed development, no matter how participatory.

Participatory Rural Appraisal

Robert Chambers, a leading figure in participatory rural appraisal (PRA), is more optimistic. He declares, “A massive shift in priorities and thinking has been taking place, from things and infrastructure to people and capabilities” (Chambers 1997:9). Chambers summarizes the PRA approach as follows: 

PRA describes a growing family of approaches and methods to enable local people to share, enhance, and analyze their knowledge of life and conditions, to plan and to act. . . . PRA has sources in activist participatory research, agroecosystem analysis, applied anthropology, field research on farming systems, and rapid rural appraisal (RRA). . . . Dominant behavior by outsiders may explain why it has taken until the 1990s for the analytical capabilities of local people to be better recognized and for PRA to emerge, grow and spread. (Chambers 1994:953)

In Chamber’s opinion, PRA is really working—it is truly participatory. 

While PRA is an improvement over the second category of participatory development in which people’s labor is considered participation, PRA stops short of the third category in which development is endogenously inspired, implemented, and maintained. 

Anthropologists Katy Gardner and David Lewis cautiously agree that PRA has “begun to challenge the assumptions of development practitioners trained within bureaucratic, status conscious and quantitative research based institutional cultures” (1996:114). Nevertheless, they state that it can easily be used within existing top-down frameworks. “For example, villagers can be routinely consulted, maps and charts can be drawn, games can be played to reveal local realities, but experts may well go off and implement their project much as planned. Like ‘participation,’ PRA is easily abused in practice” (ibid.:115). Thus the degree of participation thus depends on the agent.

Participatory Alternatives

Development practitioners may continue to improve their participatory models, but feminist political ecologists Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari (1996) maintain that local organizations and grassroots movements are key to effective social change. “Participation” facilitated by outside development agents has had mixed success in raising the quality of life for ordinary people; however, shifting the locus of power and creativity in this way can better address particular problems with more lasting effects.

Clearly, this last component is an ideal: it is not realistic to believe that all development can spring forth spontaneously and be carried on flawlessly from within localized communities. In many cases, people simply need some encouragement and external resources to begin. 

However, a more pressing concern than merely giving development a jump start is that communities or organizations are rarely homogeneous, and conflicting ideas are dealt with according to existing power structures, such that what emerges is not necessarily representative of all members’ aspirations. 

Thus, the need still exists for sensitive and committed development agents who use truly participatory methods to uncover experiences that differ according to social location, empower participants as central actors and holders of knowledge, and mediate power differentials within the community and between the community and external parties involved in the development process.

*A version of this post was originally published as Essen, Juliana (2005). Right Development: The Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement of Thailand. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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